The Evolution of Diplomacy: Ethiopia, Turkey, and Their Shared History

Ethiopia and Turkey, long-standing allies since the early 20th century, have seen their bond grow stronger in recent years amidst shared scrutiny from Western nations regarding their internal policies. However, new developments are testing this relationship. These include Turkey’s assumption of responsibility for safeguarding Somalia’s waters, encompassing the Gulf of Aden, and Ethiopia’s endeavors to secure access to the sea through an agreement with Somaliland.

Michael Bishku, a scholar specializing in Middle Eastern and African history, sheds light on the predominantly economic nature of Turkey’s ties with Ethiopia, in contrast to the more sentimental connection with Somalia, driven by a desire to assist a struggling Muslim nation.

What historical links exist between Ethiopia and Turkey?

Turkey and its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, have a long history of engagement in the Horn of Africa dating back to the 16th century. Formal diplomatic relations between Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik II and the Ottoman Empire’s Sultan Abdul Hamid II were established in 1896 following Ethiopia’s victory over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa. Meanwhile, Italy began occupying Somalia in 1889, with Britain establishing a protectorate in Somaliland in 1898. Ethiopia remained neutral during World War I, while Britain and Italy were allies. Post-war, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned, and by 1923, Turkey gained control over its territories.

In 1926, the newly-formed Republic of Turkey opened its first embassy in sub-Saharan Africa in Addis Ababa, reciprocated by Ethiopia setting up its embassy in Ankara in 1933.

During Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia from 1935 to 1937, Turkish soldiers volunteered for the Ethiopian army, with the Turkish government staunchly supporting sanctions against Italy. Even during the occupation, Ethiopia’s embassy in Turkey remained open. Turkey remained neutral during World War II but aligned with the United States afterward, as did Ethiopia under Haile Selassie.

Relations between Turkey and Ethiopia remained close during the 1960s, with both countries adopting a pragmatic approach in improving ties with both the Soviet bloc and the Arab world.

In 1974, Haile Selassie was ousted by the military, leading to the establishment of a Marxist regime in Ethiopia until 1991, during which time Turkey suspended relations.

What is Turkey’s history of engagement with Somalia?

Somalia, including former British Somaliland, gained independence in 1960. The unified state sought to annex the Somali-populated Ogaden region in Ethiopia. Turkey didn’t establish an embassy in Somalia until 1979, amidst Somalia’s shift away from close ties with the Soviet bloc during its failed attempt to occupy Ogaden (1977-1978).

Following the overthrow of President Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia descended into chaos, leading to the closure of the Turkish embassy until 2011. Turkey participated in two UN operations in Somalia during the early 1990s.

In 2011, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Prime Minister of Turkey, made history by becoming the first non-African leader to visit Somalia in two decades. He visited again as President in 2016 to inaugurate Turkey’s largest embassy complex globally. Turkish companies manage Mogadishu’s airport and seaport, and Turkey has established a military base in Mogadishu for training Somali soldiers, alongside various infrastructure projects and scholarships for Somali students.

Turkey’s aid to Somalia exceeds $1 billion since 2011, partly sourced from Muslim NGOs. Both Turkey and the UAE support Somalia against the al-Shabaab threat, though the UAE’s assistance is comparatively less extensive.

Somaliland’s declaration of independence in 1991 complicates matters, as it remains internationally recognized as part of Somalia. Despite this, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Djibouti have consulates in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa. While the UAE and Ethiopia have engaged directly with the Somaliland government, bypassing Mogadishu, Turkey’s recent agreement with Somalia demonstrates its continued commitment to the nation’s security by providing training and equipment for its naval force.

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